Outdoor education with purpose

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Alex Wood remembers an example of purposeful out-of-the-classroom learning and discusses how powerful getting outdoors can be.

Over 40 years in education I never doubted the value of out-of-class learning. From study weekends in Glasgow (for Edinburgh youngsters) to outdoor Highland adventures to international exchanges with a school in South Africa, the benefits were always apparent. 

They supported applied, practical learning in real-life situations. They opened young people to new and wider vistas and co-operative strategies.

They created warm relationships of trust and respect between learners and teachers, relationships which sustained learning long after the trips were over.

I came across some photos recently which reminded me that at the very end of my school career, a unique out-of-school learning experience made me rethink a few assumptions.

Our school had always sought, by various strategies, to prepare students for sixth year. We sought to develop skills and attributes essential for 16 and 17-year-olds who were about to become the senior year group in the school, facing major life choices in respect of career or further study, and entering adulthood in a socially divided city in the cultural heart of which many felt distinctly uncomfortable.

Two colleagues and I designed a programme to take the new S6 out of school for a range of activities in Edinburgh. We had two wonderful days in which the students were split into teams with the expectation of their working co-operatively in these groups.

The teams visited churches, museums and galleries, without teachers, and examined and questioned what they offered visitors and locals. They had to become familiar with their own city centre and develop a sense of its resources. They had to engage with visiting tourists and find what they looked for in Edinburgh. They visited the Scottish Parliament and met MSPs. They had team-building and co-operative activities in Holyrood Park. The two days ended with a meal in an Italian restaurant.

After the two days, each group had to prepare a presentation for the others and for staff on their experiences and on what they had learned.

What emerged was a cohort of young adults with a rare mix of skills. The single most apparent weakness was in leadership skills: despotism or deference were the two default positions and the concept of distributed leadership had certainly not been learned.  

Confidence levels varied but most of them however demonstrated perhaps unexpected vivacity and fine skills in dealing with strangers and the public. They started with scant awareness of much of what the adults took for granted, including our city’s great museums and galleries, but accumulated knowledge quickly (I hope some of them have subsequently and independently revisited at least some of these treasure troves).

They dealt with powerful politicians with a fine mix of respect, courtesy and scepticism. Once they stepped beyond the restricted groups within which they normally mixed in school, their capacity for friendship and social communication flourished.

The final meal was a wonderful example of camaraderie and good spirits as well as a very adult ending to what, after all, was a rite of passage as well as an educational experience.

Their subsequent presentations exhibited their capacity for focused reflection. They knew what they had learned and even had some idea of what they might have learned better. There was a universal acknowledgement of a burgeoning awareness of aspects of their own city of which previously they had known little.

Over 40 years in education I never doubted the value of out-of-class learning but I wonder if I quite grasped its potential or understood how more purposeful so much learning might be if it escaped the walls of classrooms and schools far more often.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is currently an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.


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